The Thief's Journal

Home > Notes from the Underground

I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

The New Aesthetic

Posted in Alienation, Culture on September 30th, 2012 by Richard

Of late, I’ve come across several laments for the lack of a sense of futurism contemporary culture. Take this piece on the lack of optimism in modern science fiction by Neal Stephenson:

"Neal Stephenson has seen the future—and he doesn’t like it. Today’s science fiction, he argues, is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios… That’s a problem, says Stephenson, author of modern sci-fi classics such as Snow Crash. He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world… To be sure, 20th-century sci-fi prefigured many of today’s technologies, from smart phones to MRI scanners, as you can see if you spend 30 seconds on YouTube reviewing such "Star Trek" gadgets as communicators and tricorders. Yet Stephenson argues that sci-fi’s greatest contribution is showing how new technologies function in a web of social and economic systems—what authors call "worldbuilding… Take Isaac Asimov’s novels and short stories about robots coexisting with humans, most notably his 1950 anthology I, Robot. He wrestled with such weighty issues as whether artificial beings have legal rights and the unforeseen dilemmas that could result from programming robots with moral directives."

And similarly:

"I went to see (William) Gibson talk last night and he said it might be true that his last three books were a pinhole portrait of the first decade of the 21st century. And it struck me that maybe all his books are that, he’s been approaching them from a long way in the past, imagining what they might be like. Now he’s in them, capturing portraits of the now. Soon he’ll be doing history… Anyway. It’s not just sci-fi. I’m also depressed about the lack of future in fashion. Every hep shop seems to be full of tweeds and leather and carefully authentic bits of restrained artisinal fashion. I think most of Shoreditch would be wondering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards."

Reading this, I began to wonder if the issue is that in many respects our lives are saturated with information technology to such an extent of digital alienation that the old and physical acquire a nostalgic cachet. Something of this can be seen in the new aesthetic, an attempt to document the eruption of the digital into the physical, whether that be QR codes, surveillance cameras, augmented reality, missing people adverts on 404 pages, 3D printing through to pixellated photos of physical objects. As discussed here:

"Intuitively, one feels that this could be important. Smartphones, tablet computers, drones, CCTV cameras, LCD screens, e-readers, GPS, social networking, recognition algorithms and scores of allied technologies and concepts are rising to super-ubiquity around us. They are wreaking untold changes on the behaviour of nation states, corporations and individuals. Yet all this is happening in a cultural environment broadly evacuated of ideology, apart from the exhausted fairytales of neoliberal consumer capitalism… Converging, leapfrogging technologies were evoking genuinely new emotional responses within us, responses that do not yet have names."

I think some of this can also be seen in how we choose to depict the digital. On the one hand, we have Apple’s preference for skeuomorphism whereby interfaces are designed to mimic the physical with textures, beveled edges and leather or wooden finishes. It’s all rather reassuringly retro. By contrast, Microsoft’s Metro interface is an austere environment characterised by its flatness and minimalism having kicked away the crutch of realworld metaphors.

The Last Man

Posted in Culture on April 14th, 2009 by Richard

As I’ve mentioned before, my suspicion is that this period represents the end of a particular historical period and the decline of many of its economic, political and military assumptions. As a result, seemed to echo a few of those themes:

"For a brief period, it became possible to believe that the West was headed for a condition of permanent peace; that technology, democracy, and globalization were driving a virtuous circle that no atavistic violence could disrupt. This vision never came very close to becoming a reality; the late nineteenth century was, after all, the era of communism and anarchism, imperialism and scientific racism. It is remarkable, then, to consider how many of the greatest writers of the period were exercised by the possibility that reason, progress, and material well-being—in short, the bourgeois order—might destroy the human spirit. The definitive statement of this view was offered by Nietzsche in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra…

No sooner had humanity emerged from a century of hot and cold wars than Fukuyama was resurrecting Nietzsche’s admonition that a world of peace and prosperity would be a world of Last Men. "The life of the last men is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates," he pointed out. "Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the species homo sapiens?" While Fukuyama appreciates the seriousness of the Nietzschean warning, he hears it from the perspective of a partisan, not a foe, of liberalism. The danger he foresees is not simply that bourgeois democracy will cause human beings to degenerate, but that degenerate human beings will be unable to preserve democracy. Without the sense of pride and the love of struggle that Fukuyama, following Plato, calls thymos, men—and there is always an implication that thymos is a specifically masculine virtue—cannot establish freedom or protect it.

They are victims of the zeitgeist—of "Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century," which Houellebecq describes in the novel’s very first lines as "an age that was miserable and troubled," when "the relationships between . . . contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel." The most destructive agent of this indifference is Bruno and Michel’s mother, Janine, who Houellebecq describes as an early adapter of the hedonistic, materialistic lifestyle that would become routine after the 1960s and the sexual revolution… Bruno and Michel are the prime exhibits in Houellebecq’s programmatic indictment of modern European sexual mores. Starting in the 1960s, he writes, "a ‘youth culture’ based principally on sex and violence" began to drive out the ancient Judeo-Christian culture that valued monogamy, mutual devotion, and self-restraint. The innovative element in Houellebecq’s argument is to link this new hedonism with the triumph of the European welfare state. Freed from all concern about politics and economics, men and women had nothing to occupy themselves with but the pursuit of sensual gratification. But this pursuit quickly developed into a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which the young and attractive are the objects of worship while the ugly and shy, like Bruno, are utterly despised. "Of all worldly goods," Bruno rages, "youth is clearly the most precious, and today we don’t believe in anything but worldly goods.

The Rings of Saturn is not really a novel; there is no plot and no character development. It is, rather, a branching series of stories and memories, one giving rise to the next by no logic except that of free association. In the second chapter, for instance, Sebald starts out remembering a train ride from Norwich to Lowestoft. Along the way he observes that the countryside was once covered with windmills, which have now all disappeared; visits a country house that was an architectural marvel of Victorian England, and is now a crumbling, unvisited museum; walks down a boardwalk that was once a popular holiday destination and is now seedy and abandoned; and remembers a story he once heard about two American pilots who crashed nearby, close to the end of Second World War. In other words, Sebald is drawn to stories of abandonment and loss, to sites where Western civilization seems to have died out, to obsolete technologies and unrecapturable pasts. As the book goes on, he assembles so many of these tales as to become a Scheherazade of destruction. And because Sebald the wanderer almost never encounters another person, he manages to produce the eerie sense that England itself has been abandoned, that he may be the last man left to catalog its ruins."

The article in full makes some rather odd connections with Robert Kagan’s analysis of Europe’s ‘post-historical’ condition, which seems a little odd when one considers where America’s embrace of power and history has led it and that the present US administration is adopting a mode that is rather more congenial to European sensibilities than someone like Kagan would probably like. As a result, the literary criticism seems somewhat off-key also; Houellebecq is notable for being as scabrous a critic of free market economics as he is of permissive culture (the critique made above could easily have been made of Wells or Huxley and is made to a large extent from the standpoint of a writer who models himself as a futurist), while the critique of Sebald could have been made of any number of romantic writers fascinated by ruin and decay (Hawthorne and Poe amongst them, while Rodenbach and Lampedusa match the above description rather better than Sebald). George Steiner’s Bluebeard’s Castle explains this well:

"The motif I want to fix on is that of ennui. “Boredom” is not an adequate translation, nor is Langweile except, perhaps, in Schopenhauer’s usage; la noia comes much nearer. I have in mind manifold processes of frustration, of cumulative desoeuvrement. Energies eroded to routine as entropy increases. Repeated motion or inactivity, sufficiently prolonged, secrete a poison in the blood, an acid torpor. Febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea (so precisely described by Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria) of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase — there are many approximate terms and images. Baudelaire’s use of &uot;spleen" comes closest…

"Vague epouvante," "humeur farouche" are signals we shall want to keep in mind. What I want to stress here is the fact that a corrosive ennui is as much an element of nineteenth-century culture as was the dynamic optimism of the positivist and the Whig. It was not only, in Eliot’s arresting phrase, the souls of housemaids that were damp. A kind of marsh gas of boredom and vacuity thickened at crucial nerve-ends of social and intellectual life. For every text of Benthamite confidence, of proud meliorism, we can find a counterstatement of nervous fatigue. 1851 was the year of the Universal Exhibition, but also of the publication of a group of desolate, autumnal poems, which Baudelaire issued under the significant title Les Limbes. To me the most haunting, prophetic outcry of the nineteenth century is Theophile Gautier’s "plutot la barbarie que l’ennui!" If we can come to understand the sources of that perverse longing, of that itch for chaos, we will be nearer to an understanding of our own state and of the relations of our condition to the accusing ideal of the past.

We also lack a history of the future tense (in another context I am trying to show what such a phenomenology of internal grammar would be). But it is clear that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic decades brought on an overwhelming immanence, a deep, emotionally stressed change in the quality of hope. Expectations of progress, of personal and social enfranchisement, which had formerly had a conventional, often allegoric character, as of a millenary horizon, suddenly moved very close. The great metaphor of renewal, of the creation, as by a second coming of secular grace, of a just, rational city for man, took on the urgent drama of concrete possibility. The eternal “tomorrow” of utopian political vision became, as it were, Monday morning. We experience something of this dizzying sense of total possibility when reading the decrees of the Convention and of the Jacobin régime: injustice, superstition, poverty are to be eradicated now, in the next glorious hour. The world is to shed its worn skin a fortnight hence. In the grammar of Saint-Juste the future tense is never more than moments away. If we seek to trace this irruption — it was that violent — of dawn into private sensibility, we need look only to Wordsworth’s Prelude and to the poetry of Shelley. The crowning statement, perhaps, is to be found in Marx’s economic and political manuscripts of 1844. Not since early Christianity had men felt so near to renovation and to the end of night."

What was a gifted man to do after Napoleon? How could organisms bred for the electric air of revolution and imperial epic breathe under the leaden sky of middle-class rule? How was it possible for a young man to hear his father’s tales of the Terror and of Austerlitz and to amble down the placid boulevard to the countinghouse?… The generation of 1830 was damned by memories of events, of hopes, in which it had taken no personal part. It nursed within "un fonds d’incurable tristesse et d’incurable ennui." No doubt there was narcissism in this cultivation, the somber complacency of dreamers who, from Goethe to Turgenev, sought to identify with Hamlet. But the void was real, and the sensation of history gone absurdly wrong. Stendhal is the chronicler of genius of this frustration. He had participated in the insane vitality of the Napoleonic era; he conducted the rest of his life in the ironic guise of a man betrayed. It is a terrible thing to be “languissant d’ennui au plus beau moment de la vie, de seize ans jusqu’a vingt" (Mlle. de La Mole’s condition before she resolves to love Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le noir). Madness, death are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life-form. How can an intellectual bear to feel within himself something of Bonaparte’s genius, something of that demonic strength which led from obscurity to empire, and see before him nothing but the tawdry flatness of bureaucracy? Raskolnikov writes his essay on Napoleon and goes out to kill an old woman. The collapse of revolutionary hopes after 1815, the brutal deceleration of time and radical expectation, left a reservoir of unused, turbulent energies. The romantic generation was jealous of its fathers. The "antiheroes," the spleen-ridden dandies in the world of Stendhal, Musset, Byron, and Pushkin, move through the bourgeois city like condottieri out of work.

It is precisely from the 1830s onward that one can observe the emergence of a characteristic "counterdream" – the vision of the city laid waste, the fantasies of Scythian and Vandal invasion, the Mongol steeds slaking their thirst in the fountains of the Tuileries Gardens. An odd school of painting develops: pictures of London, Paris, or Berlin seen as colossal ruins, famous landmarks burnt, eviscerated, or located in a weird emptiness among charred stumps and dead water. Romantic fantasy anticipates Brecht’s vengeful promise that nothing shall remain of the great cities except the wind that blows through them. Exactly a hundred years later, these apocalyptic collages and imaginary drawings of the end of Pompeii were to be our photographs of Warsaw and Dresden. It needs no psychoanalysis to suggest how strong a part of wish-fulfillment there was in these nineteenth-century intimations. Romantic exoticism, that longing for le pays lointain, for “faery lands forlorn,” reflected different hurts: ennui, a feeling of impotence in the face of political reaction and philistine rule, a hunger for new colors, new shapes, new possibilities of nervous discovery, to set against the morose proprieties of bourgeois and Victorian modes. It also had its strain of primitivism. If Western culture had gone bad in the teeth, there might be sources of new vision among distant savageries.

The Hermeneutic circle

Posted in Culture, Hermeneutics, Literature on July 12th, 2008 by Richard

This piece from Morgan Meis in The Smart Set struck a chord with me:

"Criticism isn’t powerful anymore. It doesn’t drive anything, it doesn’t define what is good and bad in culture. Surely this has mostly to do with all the changes in the media landscape over the last few decades. Basically, culture has been democratized. It has been flattened out and multiplied. There are no longer real distinctions between high and low. There’s just more… The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself…

Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: "critical distance." To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century… Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space. So we need another metaphor. If criticism isn’t about distance anymore, maybe it can be about closeness….

Pleasingly, a version of this argument was made by George Nathan, the co-editor (along with H.L. Mencken) of the original version of The Smart Set back in the early 20th century. Nathan wrote a little book called The Critic and the Drama. It was, I think, ahead of its time in setting up the dilemma of criticism in an age of too much art and suggested some ways to deal with it. Here’s the crucial paragraph:

If art is, in each and every case, a matter of individual expression, why should not criticism, in each and every case, be similarly and relevantly a matter of individual expression? In freeing art of definitions, has not criticism been too severely defined? I believe that it has been. I believe that there are as many kinds of criticism as there are kinds of art. I believe that there may be sound analytical, sound emotional, sound cerebral, sound impressionistic, sound destructive, sound constructive, and other sound species of criticism. If art knows no rules, criticism knows no rules — or, at least, none save those that are obvious.

That last sentence is particularly crucial. Art, Nathan is perfectly willing to accept, has no rules. Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work. Nathan doesn’t use the metaphor explicitly, but he is talking about closeness versus distance. He is talking about a kind of criticism that stands there right alongside the work of art, participating in it rather than holding it at arm’s length.

Going a little further into the metaphor of distance and closeness brings us inevitably to the grand master of critical distance, Immanuel Kant. It is simply impossible to talk about the modern critical attitude without addressing the sage of Königsberg. A central component of his aesthetics is the idea of disinterest and then of universality. For Kant, when we make genuine aesthetic judgments we do so with the implication that they are not made ‘for ourselves’ but with the implicit idea that they stand on their own, that anyone else would make the same judgment, that the judgment ought to be universally true even if that cannot be proven. This is how Kant puts it:

For if someone likes something and is conscious that he himself does so without any interest, then he cannot help judging that it must contain a basis for being liked that holds for everyone. He must believe that he is justified in requiring a similar liking from everyone because he cannot discover, underlying his liking, any private conditions, on which only he might be dependent, so that he must regard it as based on what he can presuppose in everyone else as well.

In contrast, here’s a comment by William Hazlitt, an anti-Kantian in terms of aesthetics in every bone of his body: I hate people who have no notion of any thing but generalities, and forms, and creeds, and naked propositions, even worse than I dislike those who cannot for the soul of them arrive at the comprehension of an abstract idea…They are for having maps, not pictures of the world we live in: as much as to say that a bird’s eye view of things contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

It’s always seemed to me that the idea of universal standards of taste was an obvious absurdity; any such standard wide enough to encompass Perec, Dante, Orwell and Rabelais would be so generalised as to be meaningless. There’s often something quite unpleasant about aesthetic demagoguery of critics; Ruskin’s praise of gothic architecture and Pre-Raphaelite painting was predicated on a dismissal of Whistler’s painting or architects like Cuthbert Broderick who disdained the gothic revival. Leavis praised Eliot, James, Lawrence and Conrad in The Great Tradition while dismissing the experimental on the one hand (Woolf, Joyce) and the gothic or sensational (Dickens, Bronte) on the other. Both essentially make the mistake of conflating their own predelictions with the universe and do so on grounds that are often moral or political. In either case, it’s doubtful that many of us would agree with them now. In many respects, the idea of someone whose sole function is to tell us what to think about art or literature seems a form of impertinence.

When I was first introduced to the ideas of Barthes and Derrida, it seemed to me that much of the basis for criticism as a specialised function had been demolished. If literature was less the product of a single individual writing at a specific historical period and more the product of an endless play of differance in the mind of the reader, then meaning became a subjective affair. Sceptical even then, I’m less attached to either Barthes or Derrida now, but I do still think this view holds. Matters of interpretation or hermeneutics arose out of religious exegesis, the assumption that there were transcendent meanings encoded in texts that could be divined. I suspect I’d still agree with Derrida that such concepts have become untenable. Criticism as a professional activity might do well to be based on Moretti’s sociological techniques or exploring reception theory through study groups, but the idea of interpretation as a valid function is one that probably should be discarded.

If there is a problem with the argument outlined above, it’s less likely to be an aesthetic one and is rather more likely to be a political or social one. For example, Matthew Arnold’s Kantian defence of criticism is partly due to his desire for a set of universal aesthetic standards to replace universal religious standards. Since criticism is derived from the study of religious texts and operates in a similar fashion, Arnold presumably saw the critic as an ideal replacement for the priest. A lot of this assumes that art is a form of individual expression and that the response to it is equally individual. Morgan’s arguments are the perfect ones for an atomised, individualistic post-traditional society where consumption is as much a matter of individual preference as it is one of collective identification. But there is something rather ahistorical in this view and it does seem to me that there’s a good case to be made that art if an expression of collective mores. That might be why particular genres tend to cluster in certain places at certain times. Labels like Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy or the nineteenth century novel are undoutedly generalisations but they do nonetheless exist for a reason; the works in question did not orginate in a vacuum.

The Black Sun: A History of Melancholy

Posted in Art, Culture, Literature, Melancholy on February 3rd, 2008 by Richard

"Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant—my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return." — Kierkegaard

Following my earlier piece on ruins, I had for sometime intended to write a companion piece on melancholy. This intent never succeeded in fully manifesting itself, until I was reminded of it by this article, In Praise of Melancholy:

"I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those who hurt. And I’m not romanticizing clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I’m not questioning pharmaceutical therapies for the seriously depressed or simply to make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders… Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treats melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it?"

As an argument, this cleaves to the ideas of dystopian novels like A Clockwork Orange or Brave New World that the possibility of stripping away unwanted aspects of ourselves will also dehumanise us or deprive us of our freedom. It’s an argument I have a lot of sympathy for, as I tend to feel that modern society mandates happiness, demands it as something to be conformed to even as depression becomes an every greater social ill. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the world, leaving ischemic heart disease trailing in sixth place. I also feel that modern society is equally capable of embracing melancholy as a uniform, as with the gothic subculture. It becomes a little difficult to complain too much of modern happiness when bands like The Cure, The Smiths, The Manic Street Preachers or Nirvana have had albums outselling their manufactured counterparts.

Melancholy as a concept exists in multiple forms, which warily circle one another, never joing but never quite departing from one another. The Portuguese term, saudaude denotes a feeling of longing for something that one is fond of, which is gone. It is as close to nostalgia as melancholy. The Finnish Kaiho means a state of involuntary solitude in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain. The German Sehnsucht relates to an inconsolable longing, while Japanese "empathy toward things," or "pity toward things," is used to describe the awareness of the transience of things and a gentle sadness at their passing. The importance of the cherry in Japanese culture is due to cherry blossoms symbolising the transience of life because of their short blooming times. In Italian, noia, or ennui, is a particular nuance of melancholy, infused with lingering, incompleteness, loss, and inconsolability. In Russian, toska translates as "the ache." As Nabokov put it in his notes on translating Eugene Onegin; "No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka." The Arabic word found as huzn and hazan in the Qur’an refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss. Two schools further interpreted this feeling. The first sees it as a sign that one is too attached to the material world, while Sufism took it to represent a feeling of personal insuffiency, that one was not getting close enough to God and did not or could not do enough for God in this world. Orhan Pamuk argued in his recent biography of Istanbul that in modern Turkish it has come to denote a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to melancholia.

Nonetheless, melancholy was known within Europe as "the English disease." Even as apparently stolid a figure as Dr Johnson could believe that he was damned, wished to be confined and whipped, take opium to alleviate his miseries and write that "this day it came into my mind to write the history of melancholy. On this purpose to deliberate. I know not whether it may be too much to disturb me… I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life" In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England." To the English, the disease was "the English malady." One can go back further, to 1586 and Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie; "The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities."

The term "melancholia" comes from the old medical theory of the four humours: disease being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; leading to a melancholic disposition. Melancholia was described as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Hippocrates, in his Aphorisms, characterized all "fears and despondencies, if they last a long time" as being symptomatic of melancholia. The actual word Melancholia is derived from Arabic, specifically Ishaq ibn Imran’s essay entitled Maqala fi-l-Malikhuliya, which discovered a foolish acts, fear, delusions and hallucinations under the term "malikhuliya," which Constantine the African translated into Latin as "melancolia." The doctrine of the four humours was modified somewhat in the fourth century when it came under the influence of the portrayals of madness in Greek tragedy and the Platonic notion of "divine frenzy," beginning the transformation of an essentially pathological taxonomy (the classical doctrine of the Four Humours) into a psychological one (the medieval theory of the Four Temperaments). As Agamben puts it; "Melancholy or black bile (melaina chole) is the humour whose disorders are liable to produce the most destructive consequences. In medieval humoral cosmology, melancholy is traditionally associated with the earth, autumn (or winter), the dry element, cold, the north wind, the color black, old age (or maturity); its planet is Saturn, among whose children the melancholic finds himself with the hanged man, the cripple, the peasant, the gambler, the monk, and the swineherd."

Aristotle had seen a connection between melancholy – an excess in a person of black bile – and eminence in philosophy, politics, and poetry, instancing the mythic hero Hercules and the great philosophers Empedocles, Socrates, and Plato. According to Aristotle, the ancients called melancholy "the sacred disease." Before him Plato had linked trance-like raging or frenzy to the abilities to prophesy, to perform priestly functions, to compose divine poetry, and, even, to love truly. Marsilio Ficino’s De vita triplici (1489), the first book to treat of melancholy at any length, rehabilitated the Aristotelian notion of the gifted melancholic, and expressly tied it in with the Plato’s "divine frenzy," thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the tortured genius, pitched back and forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair. Ficino linked melancholy to the astrological notion of being born under, or being at critical moments influenced by, Saturn or his spirits – Saturn being the furthest and slowest of the seven known planets and the god of old age and contemplation. From this analysis of planetary influence emerged the idea of our possessing an inner "saturnian" spirit, "daemon," or genius, and eventually the romantic and modern notion of the mad, afflicted, or wounded genius.

Predictably enough, the origins of English and European melancholy are also inextricably linked to christianity and the context of a society with high rates of mortality and comparatively brief lifespans. Rather than looking to medicine, early christianity had attributed sadness and lethargy to a condition called acedia, which opened the way to the work of the Devil. Anglo-Saxon literature was preoccupied with ideas of destiny and transience, with the Old English word dustceawung denotes contemplation of the dust. The Ruin depicts a fallen city, whose majesty has been vanquished. Poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer treat of exile and isolation, with the latter proclaiming that "hotter for me are the joys of the Lord than this dead life fleeting on the land. I do not believe that the riches of the world will stand forever." The typical images of melancholy are often those that arise from medieval art; the danse macabre, with its dancing depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike, as with Holbein’s later engraving of the Totentanz. Doom painting would show rich and poor languishing in the fire of hell, as well as graves opening on the day judgement. The imagery of skulls and hourglasses on tombstones. Sundials decorated with refrains like ‘Orimur morimur’ (We have risen and we have set) or ‘We shall soon die all’ (the latter being a rather excruciating pun on sundial). The thanatophilia is qualitatively different from the sense behind ‘carpe Diem’ or ‘nunc est bibendum.’ Clocks were decorated with mottos such as ‘ultima forsan’ (perhaps the last) or ‘vulnerant omnes, ultima necat’ (they all wound, and the last kills) and most famously ‘tempus fugit’ (time flies). Private people carried smaller reminders of their own mortality. Mary Queen of Scots owned a large watch carved in the form of a silver skull, embellished with the lines of Horace, Nunc est Bibendum. Astronomical clocks would often have the skeletal figure of death emerge to strike the hour.

Death Comes for Thomas Miller

Nonetheless, the period most associated with melancholy is the fifteenth century. At this period, the transi, or cadaver tomb, a tomb which depicts the decayed corpse of the deceased became a fashion in the tombs of the wealthy. The advent of painting created the Vanitas genre, with its depiction of skulls, flowers losing their petals and broken loot strings. Holbein’s The Ambassadors famously includes the distorted image of a skull as an intercision into a scene of courtly ostentation. This is the period of Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me dwell, Campion’s The Cypress Curtain of the Night (both following Josquin Desprez’s chanson Plaine de dueil et de melancolye, which speaks of an unbearable woe which can be relieved only through complete submission to an object of love.) and Donne’s A Valediction of Weeping. As Dean of St Paul’s, Donne carried a hourglass into his pulpit to remind the congregation "from the first minute that thou beginst to live, thou beginst to die too." This is also the man who proclained; "they tell me it is my melancholly. Did I infuse, did I drink in melancholly into myselfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse, was I not made to thinke?" Shakespeare was to return to the theme many times, as in The Taming of the Shrew, where "melancholy is the nurse of phrenzy." Later, John Milton was to write in Il Penseroso; "Hail, divinest Melancholy!, Whose Saintly visage is too bright, To hit the Sense of human sight; And therefore to our weaker view, O’er-laid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue."

More specifically, this is the period that saw the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the individual and of the artist, with the transition from craftsman and workshops to named artists. The European nobility had already undergone this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to a collection of courtiers. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and labourers. The new emphasis on disengagement and self-consciousness made the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrangements, but also transformed into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted more than fifty of them, not to mention Foucault’s preferred examples of Velasquez and Las Meninas or the fact that Durer was one of the first artists to draw and paint his own mirror reflection) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the private spaces – bedrooms, for example – in which one may retire to let down one’s guard and truly "be oneself." More decorous forms of entertainment – plays and operas requiring people to remain immobilised, each in his or her separate seat – begin to provide an alternative to the promiscuously interactive and physically engaging pleasures of carnival. The very word "self," ceased to be a mere reflexive or intensifier and achieves the status of a freestanding noun, referring to some inner core, not readily visible to others.

A number of social trends are cited in this context, such as the prevalence of death through plague and warfare and the failure of the society to provide occupations for its educated class. Under Elizabeth there had been a considerable increase of educational activity, with a consequent heightening of men’s expectations, exacerbated by self-fashioning texts in the vein of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Even before the close of the sixteenth century there were more than a few who could find no place in the existing organization of the state. The notion of a self hidden behind one’s appearance and portable from one situation to another is also often attributed to the new possibility of upward mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be – a peasant, a man of commerce or an aristocrat – and any attempt to assume another status would have been regarded as rank deception. But in the late 16th century, upward mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making "deception" a widespread way of life. You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you could find out how to act like one. Hence the popularity, in 17th-century England, of books instructing the would-be member of the gentry in how to comport himself, write an impressive letter and choose a socially advantageous wife. Hence, too, the new fascination with the theatre, with its notion of an actor who is different from his or her roles. Shakespeare’s Portia pretends to be a doctor of law; Rosalind disguises herself as a boy; Juliet feigns her own death. Writing a few years after Shakespeare’s death, Burton bemoaned the fact that acting was no longer confined to the theatre, for "men like stage-players act [a] variety of parts." It was painful, in his view, "to see a man turn himself into all shapes like a Chameleon … to act twenty parts & persons at once for his advantage … having a several face, garb, & character, for every one he meets."

Most importantly, the reformation has inaugurated a shift from the more socially directed aspects of Catholicism to Protestantism’s focus on faith alone; an emphasis of the self was an unintended product of this, in contrast to the medieval focus on the extinction of the self advocated by Thomas a Kempis. Catholicism offered various palliatives to the disturbed and afflicted, in the form of rituals designed to win divine forgiveness or at least diminished disapproval. By contrast, the Puritan strains of Protestantism did no such thing; instead of offering relief, they provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you were predestined to be so. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, carnival is the portal to Hell, just as pleasure in any form – sexual, gustatory, convivial – is the devil’s snare. Durkheim found that Protestants in the 19th century – not all of whom, of course, were of the Calvinistic persuasion – were about twice as likely to take their own lives as Catholics. More strikingly, a recent analysis finds a sudden surge of suicide in the Swiss canton of Zurich, beginning in the late 16th century, just as that region became a Calvinist stronghold.

The overthrow of the Catholic church was also an assault on all known metaphysical certainties, leading to the importance of the concept of mutability in Elizabethan literature, as in Spenser’s cantos on the subject. As such, with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the melancholic is also often the malcontent, the overreacher. Edmund in King Lear notes that "My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam." For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, conviction is rarely possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play. The particular religious significance of Hamlet is that at the head of the hierarchy of sins held by the Elizabethan religious orthodoxy lies the sin of despair. Despair represents a refusal or inability to enter into relationship with God, and, as a result, a distancing from God’s grace. Hamlet’s melancholy causes him to distrust his first inclinations toward the apparition he has encountered (an apparition whose very existence ran contrary to the theology of the time), and to test them through the device of the mousetrap scene. In effect, he accepts the popular belief that the Devil considers melancholics to be ripe for deception – a belief which looks suspiciously upon melancholy and considers it to be a possible reflection of moral or ethical lapses. But equally, Hamlet’s soliloquies can be read as conventional statements on the transience of mortal life; "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." If medieval melancholy is a simple ailment or expression of theological commonplaces, it is an expression of both theological and metaphysical confusion in Elizabethan literature. Hamlet’s "fellow of infinite jest" is surely a conventional and orthodox memento mori.

The Egyptian Avenue

The same theological and metaphysical confusion lies at the heart of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, with its influence on Byron, Keats and Lamb. Burton describes his text as "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dung hills, excrement of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out," and frequently withdraws from any sense of authorial authority; "But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a bachelor myself and lead a monastick life in a college." It can probably be best described as a fallen summa theologica, an attempt to account for the lack of metaphysical certainty in a post-reformation world ("the superstition of our age, our religious madness"), cataloguing the myriad schisms undergone by the church and the number of fanatics that have founded new cults as "they drive out one superstition with another… how many silly souls have imposters deluded!". It incessantly probes the boundaries of the immaterial and the naturalistic, cataloguing anecdotes in an encyclopaedic manner (a painter who tortured a man in order to depict it, a Swiftian tale of medical treatment by applying bellows to the fundament). The summa encompasses both the christian and the pagan, leading Burton into some rather heterodox observations. For instance, his dismissal of asceticism; "a company of cynics… that contemn the world, contemn themselves… yet in that contempt are more proud than any man living whatsoever," his dismissal of the virtuous nature of poverty "there are those that approve of a mean estate but on condition that they never want themselves," or his appeal for understanding of suicides; "we ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are." Whilst still avowing religious orthodoxy, the dialogic approach Burton adopts castigates other religions and christian sects as well as questioning some of the basic tenets of christianity; "why does he suffer so much mischief and evil to be done, if he is able to help, why doth he not assist good or resist bad?" Burton also decouples religion and morality, arguing that "the nature of injury" is sufficient to keep men obedient to the law. Finally, he also questions the validity of a universal religion, suggesting the need for infinite religions for infinite circumstances.

Similarly, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial has a marked tension between Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and by his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other; Baconian scepticism and mysticism in one text. As he put it "I perceive I doe anticipate the vices of the age, the world to me is but a dreame or mockshow, and wee all therein but Pantalones and Antickes to my severer contemplations." Therefore "tis all but one to lie in St Innocent’s Churchyard as in the sands of Aegypt… The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow…. The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature."

The consummate expression of melancholy in the visual arts is undoubtedly Durer’s Melencolia I, with its individualized and self-absorbed figure, lost in thought and unable to take up her tools. The prototypical pose of melancholy dates back to the classical period, with statues of the deranged Ajax existing in that pose. It was followed by Domenico Fetti’s St Peter (Fetti also gave one of his works the simple title Melancholy), Mary by de Zurbaran, St John, a 13th-century icon by Deodato di Orlando, and St. John the Baptist in the Desert (1480-85), a painting by Gérard de Saint-Jean, both show the prophet’s head resting on his right arm. The posture was soon borrowed by secular painting, as in Nicholas Hillard’s Portrait of Henry Percy and, in the 17th century, in Michael Sweerts’s Portrait of a Young Man. A century later, Goya used it for Portrait of Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, as did van Gogh in Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet and arguably Rodin in The Thinker.


Erwin Panofsky believed that Melencolia I presented "a spiritual self portrait of the artist inspired by celestial influences and eternal ideas, but [one who] suffers all the more deeply from his human frailty and intellectual finiteness." One of the characteristics of Durer’s picture is its superabundance of ‘overdetermined’ symbols, the comet and the rainbow, the ladder that appears to change plane halfway up, the three nails, one with a double tine and their possible allusion to the crucifixion. The purse, the keys and the clenched fist, for example, are all associated with avarice, one of the vices attributed to melancholy in the medieval period; the crown of watercress and water parsley around the angel’s brow are an antidote to the dry humour of the melancholic; the magic square is designed to invoke the healing influence of Jupiter. Panofsky concluded that Durer’s angel is a personification of Geometry overcome with Melancholy (or Melancholy giving herself up to Geometry) and was in all likelihood inspired by a follower of Ficino, the German philosopher Agrippa devon Nettesheim, whose book, De Occulta Philosophia, draws heavily on the Italian’s work, and a draft of which was sent to Dürer’s friend Johannes Trithemius, in 1510, just four years before the engraving was made. In De Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa distinguishes three kinds of melancholy: melancholia imaginationis, melancholia rationis and melancholia mentis, arranged in an ascending hierarchy. The first holds sway over the untutored, a category that includes architects and painters; the second, over philosophers, physicians and orators; the third, over contemplatives to whom God’s mysteries have been revealed. Shakespeare advanced something similar in As You Like It: "I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s, which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s, which is proud; not the soldier’s which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness." Panofsky concludes from this that Durer’s angel is a portrayal of the first of these, melancholia imaginationis, surrounded by her instruments but sunk in gloom at the thought of having accomplished nothing. More recently, Joseph Leo Koerner, has argued that Durer’s symbolic presentation of melancholy offers more clues for cultural analysis more than personal biography: "The Melencholia engraving thus seems to articulate a pivotal moment in the history of subjectivity. Where the Middle Ages substantialised inwardness as the excess of black bile and moralized that excess as the deadly sin of acedia [moral sloth], the Renaissance abstracted inwardness as an inherent quality of creative genius and valorized its effects in the originality of the artist, whose works are wholly his own."

Subsequently, melancholy seems to be held in abeyance. Diderot and Alembert dedicate a short article in their encyclopaedia to it, which recapitulates many medieval commonplaces regarding bile in spite of references to examining the brains of melancholics during autopsies. This is the age of "la douce melancolie." Nonetheless, the school of graveyard poetry developed much of what was to become romanticism, as with Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard; "Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife… Melancholy mark’d him for her own" Sentimental novels like Manon Lescaut were to create a new focus upon the interior life in terms that were often highly similar to sixteenth century descriptions of the melancholic lover. Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Similarly, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther also presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally," before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.

Only towards the very end of the century, when the French Revolution begins devouring its own children, does the black sun of melancholy once more start to rise. Most famously, the term is reintroduced by Keats in his Ode to Melancholy; "Aye, in the very temple of Delight, Veiled Melancholy has her sov’reign shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue, Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine, His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung." Keats had written that "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence… Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" repeating the idea of the melancholic as one given special insights; the only way to engage the great mysteries of life is to suffer "Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression."

This next chapter in the history of melancholy comes once more with a change to how society came to regard the individual, with the advent of romanticism. The romantic stress upon the internalised quest romance further accentuates the role of the individual, as tormented genius and as rebel, as in Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Alastor. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, the destruction of the ancien regime itself acted to further decouple the individual from their assigned social roles, ending Burke’s "age of chivalry" and introducing a paradox whereby although romanticism often tended to be radical in its politics it also aestheticised medieval chivalry. Individuals felt that they should be able to rise up through society in the same way that Napoleon had done, leading once more to the problem of over-educated young men unable to realise their ambitions, as with Stendhal’s Julien Sorel or Balzac’s Philippe Bridau. More crudely put, the unleashing of the terror, and the consequent betrayals of enlightenment aspirations, create a new emphasis on the melancholic, the most noted examples of which being Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and Yard with Lunatics, the latter rearticulating the melancholic linkage of imagination and madness that is also present in Fuseli’s paintings (The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins alludes to sublimity in its title but also uses the standard tropes of melancholy in its depiction).

Secondly, romantic aesthetics existed at a particular intersection with religion that emphasised only remote and fleeting glimpses of the infinite being granted to solitary individuals. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke had defined these two modes as being "ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain , the other on pleasure." , going onto define the one as dark and gloomy, the other the reverse." Kant views the sublime as an attempt to grasp an absolute conception of magnitude, while the beautiful is restricted to the phenomenal world. Kant describes the sublime as a complex feeling that combines both displeasure and pleasure. The displeasure is caused by the agitation and overwhelming of the senses and imagination which struggle but fail to take in the vastness or power of the sublime object. In the dynamically sublime the displeasure also seems to be caused by a feeling verging on fear. We feel so overwhelmed by the object that we would fear for our lives, except that we are safe and secure, and thus able to experience a sense of awe rather than genuine fear. Kant points to how sublime objects invite melancholy: "Thus any spectator who beholds massive mountain climbing skyward, deep gorges with raging streams in them, wastelands lying in deep shadow and inviting melancholy meditation, and so on is seized by amazement bordering on terror." The experience of the sublime is consequently a devastating one that the individual is not fully able to intuit. Thus Wordsworth in The Prelude writes of how "I grew up, fostered alike by beauty and by fear… terrors, pains, and early miseries, … interfused within my mind … (made) up the calm existence that is mine." The Lyrical Ballads are replete with examples of solitary figures; for example in The Mad Mother the narrator writes that "I am happy when I sing, Full many a doleful thing… if thou art mad, my pretty lad, Then I must be for ever sad." In some respects romantic melancholia is a critique of Kantian aesthetics, emphasising horror and fear rather than awe and terror. Something similar pertains to literature and to the creation of the gothic novel in particular. Ann Radcliffe drew a distinction between terror and horror; the former we are told expands the soul, the latter only creates revulsion, with that being the part dwelt on by the likes of Lewis, Beckford and Maturin. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe opens Premature Burial by declaring "there are certain themes of which the
interest is all absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction". The opening section of the story constitutes a discussion of the division between the sublime and the grotesque, terror and horror. The discussion is nonetheless strangely inconclusive. Intitially, we are told "these the mere romanicist must eschew, if we do not wish to offend, or to disgust". Many of Poe’s critical principles are romantic so we would naturally assume that
he himself ought to avoid such themes, but the phrase "mere romanticist" alerts us that this issue is more complex that that. Poe justifies his continuation by saying "they are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of truth sanctify and sustain them". As the story progresses the cataleptic malady becomes equated with horror rather than terror. The narrator describes his "very horror of thought" and states that "my fancy grew charnel". In
the earlier section we had been told that "fancy" usually viewed as inferior to the imagination in romantic thought, as with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, is impressed by terror which is here seen as inevitably degenerating to horror and disgust, as in the narrator’s dream "I fell prey to perpetual horror". By Poe’s own criteria, he seems to indulge these "morbid" instincts on the part of both reader and author, only to disperse them "the imagintion of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern".

The Hardy Tree

This critique of sublimity through melancholy is perhaps most evident in the work of Kleist and Thomas DeQuincey. Kleist’s works presents rather bizarre combination of ontological ideas. One the one hand, he developed a pre-Nietzchean form of pessimism surrounding Kant’s distinction of the unknowability of things as noumena and as phenomena, so that his work is replete with ironic misprisions, with tragic consequences in The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, The Foundling and The Earthquake in Chile. However, this also leads to an emphasis on supernaturalism as inThe Beggarwoman of Locarno and St Cecilia or The Power of Music, implying a divine ordering in the sense that Kant had originally intended, rather than Kleist’s original pessimistic interpretation. At one point in The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater DeQuincey informs the reader that "in his happiest state, the opium reader cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro; even there he speaks … as becomes Il’ Penseroso." In his Letters To a Young Man DeQuincey writes that Kant did not offer universal rules by which certain problems could be tested, but that "by raising the station of the spectator… the very faculty of comprehending these questions will often depend on the station from which they are viewed." The spectator is the centre of a number of varying reactions, making the narrator the centre a function as much as a persona. To Kant the mind exists in an indeterminate relation to the aesthetic object, unless in the presence of the sublime. At this point the imagination fails to grasp totality but because of this failure the reason is able to intuit the existence of the infinite. The obvious problem with this is that order in the system is maintained at the temporary expense of the subject, which is crushed by the overbearing presence of the sublime. Whereas to Wordsworth the shock of the sublime encoded within the spots of time has the effect of forcingan ultimate awareness of the infinite upon an closed mind, DeQuincey remains unconvinced as to whether the sublime allows anything other than the mind reconstructing reality upon its own terms. It therefore comes as no surprise when The English Mail Coach we were told of how "the dreamer finds housed within himself – occupying … some separate chamber in his brain … his own nature repeated." The finite self is left eternally striving in much the same manner as Piranesi on his staircase, "God, seems to be scure and deep, only so long as the presence of man and his restless and unquiet spirit are not there."

The Natural History of Destruction

Pre-eminent in the visual arts are works like Caspar David Friedrich’s Cloister Graveyard in the Snow and Arnold Bocklin’s The Island of the Dead. As an aspect of conventional romantic aesthetics, David Friedrich’s paintings often feature landscapes with a single figure with her or his back to the beholder, but both themes, dwell rather more on decay and contain echoes of the Middle Ages, for, much as the medieval hermit withdrew to the desert for purgation, only to fall prey there to the temptations of demons, so the solitary Romantic turns to nature for spiritual replenishment, only to be beset by visions of an infinite and possibly indifferent universe. The Romantic fascination with ruins can, after all, ultimately be traced back to the medieval tradition of apocalypse.

The nineteenth century can in many respects be regarded as the zenith of melancholy. Schopenhauer had written of how "abnormal sensitiveness produces inequality of spirits, a predominating melancholy, with periodical fits of unrestrained liveliness. A genius is one whose nervous power or sensitiveness is largely in excess; as Aristotle has very correctly observed, Men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art appear to be all of a melancholy temperament." The pessimism of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, combined with the death of god heralded by Nietzsche and Darwin led to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Dover Beach (" Sophocles long ago, Heard it on the Aegaean, and it brought, Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow, Of human misery… The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore, Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear, Its melancholy"). The lines in Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "While you live, Drink! — for, once dead, you never shall return," mark the return of a pagan melancholy that had not been witnessed since the likes of Horace. Equally, this was a period that constructed lavish funerary monuments in the style of classical temples or gothic cathedrals and decorated them with Egyptian spinxes. The impression is invariably of an industrialised and deracinated society that had lost contact with its own funerary traditions and instead retreated into something that more resembled a collage of differing styles. The invention of photography also ushered in the advent of mortuary photography, something daguerreotype photography was well suited to. Intrigued by psychiatric research some artists and photographers followed in Hogarth’s footsteps to visit asylums to paint and draw the insane. Nonetheless, it was also a period when melancholy’s connections with ideas of the divine frenzy and the sublime were severed and it grew increasingly marginalised as something decadent and diseased. This went hand in hand with, for the middle classes at least, a declining awareness of death and mortality. Even tuberculosis, the disease feted by Sontag as the central metaphor of the Victorian era, was something increasingly confined to sanatoria. As Walter Benjamin put it; "It has been observed for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness… in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs." Put in Foucauldean terms, it was a period when the birth of clinic sundered the melancholic from society into a specially devised category. Experiences like those of the Bronte sisters, growing up amidst the graves of the churchyard, were to become increasingly unusual, with new cemeteries being built outside of populous areas, as with Brookwood and Kensal Green.

Highgate Egyptian Avenue

During this period, the historian Janet Oppenheim argued, "severely depressed patients frequently revealed fears of financial ruin or the expectation of professional disgrace," as with characters like the Dorrit family in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit. This is not autonomy but dependency: the emerging "self" defines its own worth in terms of the perceived judgments of others. For far from being detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them. As Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is everything, the individual nothing … But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all [human]."

This led Durkheim to draw theoretical conclusions on the social causes of suicide, seeing it as resulting from too little social integration (London and London bridge were almost synonymous with suicide, as with the Hexams in Our Mutual Friend or any number of suicides in his novels, from Merdle to Lady Dedlock). Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. Sporadic decreases in the ability of traditional institutions (such as religion, guilds, pre-industrial social systems, etc.) to regulate and fulfil social needs played a part in this, as did the long term dimunition of social regulation. Durkheim identified this type with the ongoing industrial revolution, which eroded traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them. Industrial goals of wealth and property were insufficient in providing happiness, as was demonstrated by higher suicide rates among the wealthy than among the poor. Thus opens the canvas of the nineteenth century social novel, with its scores of atomised characters and suicides, characters like Dicken’s Miss Wade and the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground or works like Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night where Melancholy presides as London’s goddess; "O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!, O battling in black floods without an ark!, O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!.. My wine of life is poison mixed with gall, My noonday passes in a nightmare dream.".

The Liverpool Medici

As the century drew on, melancholy was increasingly regarded not only as an illness but as a form of criminal degeneration. This change was effected by three men; the psychiatrist Benedict Auguste Morel, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the writer Max Nordau. Where the Neoplatonist philosophers had seen in the spiritual torments of the "children of Saturn" the seeds of genius, for Lombroso and company the imaginative powers of Baudelaire, for example mark him out as, quite literally, a madman. "Baudelaire," the criminologist wrote, "strikes us as the true type of lunatic possessed by the manie des grandeurs: provocative appearance, defiant gaze, extreme self-satisfaction" and so on.

Baudelaire’s poetry itself reminds me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. In reading Baudelaire, one soon discovers that his world is urban (following the lead of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd with its depiction of the regimented urban bustle thrown up by the Industrial Revolution), where that of his predecessors was natural; the world of the flaneur is one of alienation and anomie, not encounters with the sublime. The poet, the artist, was thereby displaced, even in his own eyes. He was no longer the hero, the seer and prophet who leads a grateful people to a higher spiritual life. He was now an outcast — maudit (accursed), doomed to misery, poverty, disease, and death. The city it is that gives rise to the comprehensive word for the unrelieved Baudelairean experience: &quotSpleen." Its connotation in French is depression; it is not tender like melancholy, nor does it carry the idea of resentment as does English "spleen." In a sense, Baudelaire’s egotistical sublime rather resembles Burton’s encylopaedianism. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent, so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks of throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry works by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Similarly, De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie similarly emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

In their fascination with ruins and the macabre the Romantics had gestured toward the existence of melancholy, but its scientific grounding came with the work of Freud. Here, the melancholic is no longer a romantic figure. Entrapped in narcissistic regression, he or she resists any consolation and inhabits a surround devoid of affect and feeling, other than that of a compulsive desire to "repeat the trauma of loss." Ever since he wrote On Transience in 1915, Freud acknowledged that mourning was the crucial conundrum that the therapist must penetrate. "Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back." In Freudian theory, "mourning follows a loss that has really occurred," asserts Agamben; "in melancholia not only is it unclear what object has been lost [self or other], it is uncertain that one can speak of a loss at all." In a 1917 essay titled Mourning and Melancholia, Freud began a meditation on the manner in which the human psyche deals with loss. "Mourning," he wrote, "is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person." We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful." This is grief at the "normal" register. By contrast, "melancholia," though sharing many of the surface characteristics of "mourning," is identified by Freud as a pathological illness, marked by an inability to recover from the loss, to "overcome" it, and to return to daily activities. Thus, "the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound," a wound that refuses to heal, a loss that cannot be salved.

Unsurprisingly, after Freud melancholy lost its organizing status and became a minor category subsumed into the larger realm of developmental psychology. Similarly, the melancholy and the tragic are perhaps too integral an aspect of modernist aesthetics for it to be distinguishable amidst the surrounding sound and fury; consider Eliot’s "Webster was much possessed by death, And saw the skull beneath the skin" or Benjamin’s "Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them…. The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning is born of its loyalty to the world of things." Modernist literary discourses are generally haunted by the spectre of loss: loss of a coherent and autonomous self, loss of a social order in which stability reigned, loss of metaphysical guarantees, and in some cases loss and fragmentation of an empire. Holderlin’s elegiac sense of modernity’s profound loss; Rilke’s elegiac metaphysics of absence, the loss of personal identity in Woolf’s novels, the loss of authentic existence in Hamsun’s novels (Hunger perhaps being the modern work that most deserves to be labelled melancholic) Heidegger on the forgetting of Being or the nightmare worlds of Beckett and Kafka. In the midst of all this, the pleasurable sense of melancholy is either at a loss or is simply subsumed, in the same way as the traditional idea of the ruin began to seem merely picturesque by the twentieth century. As EM Cioran put it "Melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it." Modernism was the culture of an age of mass death. It was, as Matei Calinescu has said, an "aesthetic thanatophilia." Richard Howard, in his homage to Ford Madox Ford, called the modern "that all-inclusive negative." By the end of the second world war the question had become even more difficult, with the likes of Plath termed a depressive rather than a melancholic; the two terms may be congruent but they are far from synonymous.

After David Friedrich

Some visual arts continue to reference melancholy, as with De Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, or several works by Edvard Munch all entitled "Melancholy," Several versions depict a pensive man sitting by the sea (for example, paintings from 1891; 1892), many repeating the pose depicted previously by Fetti and Durer. Even so, there’s little doubt that his painting of The Scream was rather more in keeping with the spirit of that age. Conspicuously present in the background of Durer’s engraving is an enigmatic, eight-sided, and up to the present inscrutable polyhedron, one whose very inscrutability makes it mysterious, even uncanny. Alberto Giacometti based a sculpture on this work, sculpting a plaster version of the singular-looking polyhedron in Durer’s composition. It seems to summarise well the displacement of the traditional iconography of melancholia.

Melancholy was ultimately parasitic on christian theology and its secularised equivalents in romantic aesthetics. However, there has been at least one noteworthy resurgence. In his recent book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk draws connections between representations of Istanbul by French writers who visited the city in the nineteenth century such as Nerval and Gautier, and those by prominent Turkish writers of the early twentieth century. Pamuk emphasizes the melancholic tone in all of these "western" and "eastern" representations of Istanbul, which in turn constructed his own perceptions of his home city. "A sense of deprivation and hopelessness" which was verbalized by Baudelaire as the definition of beauty, and which can be seen in Nerval’s and Gautier’s depictions of Istanbul’s landscape, also appears in Pamuk’s Istanbul, as the melancholy raised by wandering in the poor back-streets of Istanbul, in its ruins from past civilizations, in the midst of an urban landscape that has lost the glorious days it had during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. The huzun inscribed deeply in the urban landscape of Istanbul is a collective melancholy for Pamuk that unifies its residents. In Baudelaire and Pamuk, melancholy is no longer something internal to the subject, but something connected to the object. It is not a single individual who is melancholic, but the city’s landscape (manzara), "the beautiful object", that elicits the feeling of melancholy as a collective emotion. Melancholy thus leaves the isolated individual and infiltrates the city itself. In the book that juxtaposes his autobiography with the biography of the city, Pamuk suggests melancholy caused by "poverty, defeat, and the feeling of loss" as the primary common emotion of Istanbul.

Literature and Myth

Posted in Culture, Literature on July 14th, 2007 by Richard

Margaret Atwood comments on Bengt Ohlsson’s retelling of Hjalmar Söderberg’s Dr Glas:

"Novels that snitch characters from other novels or stories and retell events from their point of view can give a reader the uneasy feeling that a previous author’s work has been violated. None the less, such books now constitute almost a separate genre. The earliest attempts – such as Shamela, in which Fielding took the stuffing out of Richardson’s pious Pamela – were often satiric, but the 20th and 21st centuries, with their interest in the scorned, the marginalised and the voiceless, have approached this task with more seriousness. Jean Rhys looked at Jane Eyre through the eyes of Mr Rochester’s mad wife in the brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea; John Gardner has Grendel the Monster give a capering, blood-swilling, tragic rendition of Beowulf in the equally brilliant Grendel. Classics such as Rebecca, Gone with the Wind, and – endlessly – Dracula, have had their shadow versions, as have many other books. The mere doing of such a thing is no longer a novelty, and thus the doing of it well has become a considerable challenge."

If you were to believe someone like Harold Bloom, all writing is in essence a means of rewriting or reintperpreting what preceded it, as with the likes of Keats and Blake rewriting Milton and Spenser. As Atwood suggests this is something that seems to have become a genre in its own right in recent years with novels like Will Self’s Dorian (rewriting The Picture of Dorian Gray as a modern gay novel), Great Apes (a Ballardian rewrite of Gulliver’s Travels and Boulle’s Planet of the Apes), Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tale – one might also mention Atwood’s own Penelopiad in that context), Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (almost any Victorian novel you might care to designate, but especially Anna Karenin and Madame Bovary) Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius or Cunningham’s The Hours (more unusually rewriting a modern text, namely Mrs Dalloway). A variant on this adopts authors as characters, like Coetzee’s The Master of Saint Petersburg, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes or Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden Baden. With all that said, as Atwood suggests, this is something that seems to have a particular force in genre fiction, as with the innumerable reinterpretations of Dracula (itself rewriting the likes of LeFanu) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Martin’s Mary Reilly, for example), the legions of Sherlock Holmes stories (the stories themselves, being in many ways a rewrite of Poe’s detective novels, with the reinterpretation of Holmes having arguably begun as early as Hornung’s Raffles and then continued with the likes of August Derleth, himself perhaps best known for having rewritten much of Lovecraft).

I agree with Atwood that this is something that has grown in prominence over recent decades; this is a post-romantic age (notwithstanding romantic rewriting of medieval mythologies) and the idea of the author as a solitary genius was always likely to give way to a conception of writers as more firmly embedded in a shared set of culture and myths. This is after all how the likes of Euripides and Sophocles approached figures like Medea and Electra, or how Shakespeare and Marlowe approached Caesar and Edward the Second. However, I also tend to suspect that a lot of this writing reflects a post-traditional nostalgia for periods where literature had more of a hegemonic cultural status; hence the particular interest in rewriting Victorian literature, that being probably the last period where forms of elite literature could conceivably also carry popular appeal. I recently came across this interesting analysis of the state of modern art:

"It has become excruciatingly difficult and even impossible to write a history of contemporary art — a history that will do justice to all the art that is considered contemporary: that is the lesson of postmodernism. If writing history is something like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, as psychoanalyst Donald Spence suggests, then contemporary art is a puzzle whose pieces do not come together. There is no narrative fit between them, to use Spence’s term, suggesting just how puzzling contemporary art is, however much its individual pieces can be understood…

In Postmodernism what André Malraux called the global "museum without walls" has been realized, resulting in the unlimited expansion of the contemporary. The radical pluralism that prevails in the museum without walls has made a mockery of the belief that there is one art that is more “historical” than any other. Thus history has become as absurd and idiosyncratic as the contemporary… Even if one was a Gibbon one could not fit all the pieces of contemporary art together in a unified narrative. In postmodernity that is no longer any such thing as the judgment of history, only an incomplete record of the contemporary…

History is no longer possible in postmodernism because of modernism itself: at its most vital, it is a history of self-questioning and self-doubt, leading artists to look far a field for their identity… At the same time, the indiscriminate adulation of creativity — virtually any kind of creativity, leading to the labeling of any kind of activity as creative if it is performed "differently" — is responsible for the overcrowding of contemporary art. It is paradoxically the loss of standards of creative excellence that makes art vulnerable to market and populist forces. They alone can make an art "historical" and "meaningful" when it is no longer clear what the value of art is."

It’s not difficult to see how this might also easily apply to modern literature, which ranges from traditional realism, postmodernism (Eco) to magical realism (Carter) or hysterical realism (Pynchon), as well as writers that seem to have analogues in disciplines like art (Ballard) rather than any currently dominant literary trends. Rewriting may be one of the few ways writers can overcome Vattimo’s ideas of The Death or Decline of Art, where art, by way of resisting tradition and engaging in continual forms of experimentation, loses is cultural niche. With that said, Vattimo saw this as having less to do with resistance and more to do with self-referential dissidence, allusion and pastiche, a point that can be left open for other times.

Updates: a new addition to this genre in the form of Castorp, a sequel to Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

"The situation of Huelle’s Castorp reminds one of Jean Rhys and her celebrated Wide Sargasso Sea. In that novel the canonical narrative of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is challenged through the switching of perspectives. By giving voice to Antoinette Cosway, the actual name of the animal-like and repulsive Bertha Rochester in Bronte’s work, Rhys invites her audience to a contrapuntal rereading of Bertha’s traumatic life story as told from her own non-British perspective. This is how Rhys "writes back" to Bronte and to the colonial discourse encapsulated in Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea we see the polemic response by the former British colony to the dominating image of the periphery as solidified in the master narratives of the metropolitan center…

I argue that Pawel Huelle’s novel should be viewed from a similar position. The Gdansk-based episode of Castorp attracts readers’ attention by the unique postcolonial perspective from which the novel personae and events are narrated… Gdansk in Castorp is, in fact, more than just a provincial melting pot bearing some marks of a splendid Hanseatic past. Viewed through the protagonist’s eyes, the town seems to comply perfectly with the criteria of literary representation of colonized space defined by Fanon. Dominated by the Germans, it has Prussian barracks with Prussian soldiers and a newly established German university with German and Prussian students. Every street and building is filled with things German. However, the town constitutes a space that is heterogeneous, with an array of impervious zones. Viewed by Castorp the biker, the indigenous Polish and Kashubian people constitute an enclave driven to the margin of the world and its spatial representation. "

Dracula has also proved fertile ground for rewriting and revision; most obviously through the many films made of the novel, but more recently through other forms of writing, such as Robert Forrest’s The Voyage of the Demeter, which dwells on the events onboard the ship that brought the vampire to Whitby and are entirely elided from the novel. This is also the premise behind The Dracula Innocence Project, which questions the reliability of Stoker’s narrators in order to rewrite the novel.

Language and recursion

Posted in Culture, Language, Religion on June 16th, 2007 by Richard

Having been interested for a while in the ideas of Sapir and Lee Whorf, the recent research on the Piraha language, which has occasionally been characterised as providing evidence for those theories, was something I was immediately interested in. Looking into it in more detail, I don’t think it actually does support Sapir to any marked intent, but as this article argues, it does challenge many current assumptions about language and consciousness:

"So in the case of Piraha, the language I’ve worked with the longest of the 24 languages I’ve worked with in the Amazon, for about 30 years, Pirahã doesn’t have expressions like "John’s brother’s house". You can say “John’s house”, you can say "John’s brother", but if you want to say "John’s brother’s house", you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house". They have to say it in separate sentences.

One answer that’s been given when I claim that Piraha lacks recursion, is that recursion is a tool that’s made available by the brain, but it doesn’t have to be used. But then that’s very difficult to reconcile with the idea that it’s an essential property of human language—if it doesn’t have to appear in a given language then, in principle, it doesn’t have to appear in any language. If it doesn’t have to appear in one part of a language, it doesn’t have to appear in any part of a language… If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That’s not part of the grammar per se, that’s part of the way that they tell their stories.

So the evidence is still being collected, the claims that I have made about Pirahã lacking recursion and the fact that Piraha is an evidence that there probably isn’t a need for universal grammar. Contrary to Chomsky’s proposal that universal grammar is the best way to think about where language comes from, another possibility is just that humans have different brains that are different globally from those of other species, that they have a greater general intelligence that can be exploited for all sorts of purposes in human thinking and human problem-solving… The ongoing investigation of these claims and alternatives to universal grammar, an architectonic effect of culture on grammar as whole, and the implications of this for the way that we’ve thought about language for the last 50 years are serious. If I am correct then the research so ably summarized in Steve Pinker’s book The Language Instinct might not be the best way to think about things."

What particularly interests me about these arguments is the role they play in the overall history of ideas. In contrast to the ideas of Marx, Freud, Skinner and Foucault, which all assumed to varying degrees that environmental forces are markedly more important than what would now be termed genetic considerations, modern conceptions of rationality have increasingly spurned the idea of the blank slate and moved towards a conception that bears a marked resemblance to that of Thomas Hobbes, if we substitute the term ‘genes’ for ‘passions.’ As Edward O Wilson observed every human brain is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as ‘an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid. I have to admit that evolutionary psychology of this kind is not something I have ever had a great deal of regard for; it tends to involve post-hoc extrapolations that are typically every bit as unfalsifiable as Freud’s theories. In either case, the term ‘just-so story’ seems amply deserved. It tends to disregard culture as a natural and material phenomenon and one that can be described as responding to a form of natural selection. If that is being displaced in favour of a more nuanced, tempered view, the I’ll certainly be happy.

The Blame of Shadows

Posted in Aesthetics, Culture on February 23rd, 2007 by Richard

An interesting article from Cabinet Magazine on the history of shadows:

"The prisoners in Plato’s cave were incapable of gazing directly into the light of knowledge. They had their backs to this bright light and saw only the shadows cast on the cave walls. Plato’s point was that they saw only the shadow of reality, not reality itself. The image had a tremendously negative charge for Plato and he linked the image with the shadow—both were copies of reality. And so, from the beginning on, to attain true knowledge one had to renounce the shadow stage and progress out of the cave, into the sun… I was struck by the strange parallels between the Platonic story of the origins of knowledge and Pliny’s story about the origin of painting. Maybe one of the most important differences between them is that, in Pliny’s story about the origin of representation, the shadow wasn’t charged with a negative aspect: the story of the maid of Corinth tracing her lover’s shadow on a wall and thereby giving birth to painting is a wonderful story, a love story, and not at all negative.

Leonardo, and others after him, said that the representation of shadows had to be correct but was not obligatory in painting. The painter was free to choose whether to represent them or not, because to represent all cast shadows would be too much."

The dichotomy between light and shadow is one that places Plato in the same moral hierarchy as the opposition of the light to the outer darkness in christianity. Clearly, the view taken by Pliny was nonetheless also to persist (most obviously through the tracing of a subject’s profile as delineated by their shadow in the eighteenth century), the Western painter most noted for his interplay of light and shadow is after all the amoralist Caravaggio, with his sexualised and dissident saints. The shadow was also seen as a metaphor for the inner life in German fairy tales and expressionist cinema. One thing I am surprised the article doesn’t mention is an essay by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki entitled In Praise of Shadows:

"Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold; but those who lived in the dark houses of the past were not merely captivated by its beauty, they also knew its practical value; for gold, in these dim rooms, must have served the function of a reflector. Their use of gold leaf and gold dust was not mere extravagance. Its reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination. Silver and other metals quickly lose their gloss, but gold retains its brilliance indefinitely to light the darkness of the room. This is why gold was held in such incredibly high esteem… In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion."

Tanizaki suggests that Oriental aesthetics valued shadow above light, therefore preferring wood and lacquerware to tiles and ceramics. For example, a Tudor building like Hardwick Hall was constructed with much of its walls consisting of windows to cast light on the bright tapestries within and to overcome the darkness of the wood. Later, rococco buildings such as Versailles or Sanssouci were decorated in bright colours with  large windows on one side of a room and mirrors on the other. In each case, the goal was to banish shadow and darkness.

One of the problems of this thesis is that it can be better described as polemical than descriptive. After all dark woods were a favoured building material for much of Western history and ceramics were largely imported from the East. The axonometric perspectives used in Oriental art commonly lacked an explicit light source and often tended to omit shadow altogether. When Tanizaki attributes the importance of gold to being a reflector in subdued light that will not easily lose its lustre, he forgets that this is precisely why it was popular in the West as well). The polemic springs from a backlash against the Westernization of Japan that followed the 1867 Meiji restoration; much of the essay consists of invective against the unconscious Western assumptions in many modern conveniences, recalling Camille Paglia’s assertion that cinema had always been an implicit concept in the Western visual imagination (e.g. electric lighting where Tanizaki undermines some of his case by noting that the Japanese were more enthused by electric lighting than any other nation save the United States; in contrasting cultures it becomes clear that the cultures in question are far from being monolithic entities. Not to mention his own refusal to inhabit a house as uncomfortable as his aesthetics advocated) which veers between pleading for recognition of Japanese identity as being ’separate but equal’ and denouncing Western civilisation as being tasteless and uncouth (since it is the origin and otherness of many of these conveniences which seems to trouble Tanizaki at least as much as the unwelcome nature of the changes).

The Emmigrants

Posted in Alienation, Culture, England, Germany, Individuality on January 28th, 2007 by Richard

This piece on German conceptions of identity rather struck me:

"Speakers at awards ceremonies and festivals often remind their listeners of the role of literature in the creation of the German nation… But most speakers overlook the fact that by the time Germany finally emerged as an intellectual and later political structure, Germany’s writers had long since begun to think beyond Germany. The great German philosophers and poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – be it Goethe or Kant – had their sights not on German but on European unification. In Germany, the Enlightenment was from the very start not a national but a European programme. In literature too, the preferred models were not German, drawing instead on non-German literature from Homer to Shakespeare and Byron. German was something German literature did not want to be – and which is was nonetheless precisely in its appropriation of non-German motifs and structures. “Overview of the European Conditions of German Literature” is the title given by August Wilhelm Schlegel to his 1825 essay on the peculiarities of German intellectual life: “We are, I may confidently claim, the cosmopolitans of European culture”…

This vision put its proponents at odds with the nationalist zeitgeist in Germany, although in retrospect they are often claimed by it. Anti-nationalist opposition intensified in the twentieth century, especially after the experiences of World War II: the dream of a democratic union of European states was what the Mann brothers, Hesse, Hoffmansthal, Tucholsky, Zweig, Roth and Döblin upheld in the face of German nationalism… Germany’s writers have always been characterized among other things by their fraught relationship with Germany. They are Great Germans, despite or precisely in the way they quarrelled with Germany. In other words: Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany… At the end of his lecture on “Germany and the Germans” in May 1945 at the Library of Congress, the same Thomas Mann reminded his listeners that none other than Goethe “went so far as to yearn for a German Diaspora.” The comment by Goethe quoted by Mann here comes from a conversation with Chancellor Müller from 14 December 1808: “Like the Jews, the Germans must be transplanted and scattered over the world […] in order to develop the good that lies in them, fully, and to the good of all nations.”"

This rather reminded me of one of the more striking examples of Germany’s national guilt, WG Sebald:

"After moving to England as a student and deciding to live there permanently, Sebald began to see a connection between his own emigration and the Egelhofer family history of emigration to the United States. Attached through his father’s military career to the legacy of German aggression on the one hand, Sebald imaginatively connected himself through his maternal line to the displaced wanderers and “victims” of history on the other; for instance, his (fictional) great-uncle in the story “Ambros Adelwarth” in The Emigrants (loosely based on his aunt Fanny’s brother-in-law) is the lifelong companion of a wealthy American Jew who dies insane, tormented by visions of the horrific carnage in World War I that also call to mind the later Nazi atrocities.

Readers have sometimes expressed discomfort with this connection, accusing Sebald of inappropriately identifying with the Jewish victims of National Socialism, as if he, too, were an “exile” of history. The objection is misguided, however, for Sebald never forgot the distinction between the forced exile of the Nazi period and his own voluntary postwar emigration; his entire work offers an eloquent tribute to the memory and memorialization of that historical difference. However, his literary imagination naturally sought out points of contact and continuity. For his book about four aging “emigrants,” he deliberately avoided the term exilierte, preferring instead the capacious and somewhat antiquated term ausgewanderte (literally, those who have “wandered” or “gone out”) in order to include his own family history of emigration. The Jewish exiles of National Socialism are but one, admittedly central part of a much broader pattern of modern displacement reaching back to the French Revolution (with an implicit titular reference to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten) and the economic emigrations of both Jews and Germans from Central Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sebald’s semiautobiographical literary work is thus premised on a dual identity: as the son of a Wehrmacht officer who bears witness to the victims of German violence, but also as a member of his grandfather’s nonmilitary, emigrant family who identifies with these victims existentially."

My interest in this stems from my own ancestry, which although predominantly English, also stems from Saxony in what was once known as East Germany. To be specific, it stems from migration from Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Equally, the theme of exile is something I feel keenly in that while I now live in the south of England, I grew up in the Midlands, a place of markedly contrasting character and economic fortunes. My relationship with my country of birth is accordingly every bit as difficult as that described above for Germany (particularly since I find easier in a lot of respects to relate to my home region of the Midlands than to a construct called ‘England’). The British do (at least in their better part*) tend to deprecate ideas of national pride, instead emphasising a vision of England of motorways, national decline and high rises. The nation that, to paraphrase Morrissey, they forgot to shut down. In theory, Britain and Germany should have a great deal in common. Both are not so much states as convenient constructs formed to unify a disparate collection of ethnic nations. Since both nations had been constructed rather than having evolved, both tended to exist as essentially an idea. Where Germany has been defined through its diaspora of writers like Sebald and Kafka (as well as the wartime diaspora of figures like Mann, Schoenberg and Lang), Britain has been defined through a cosmpolitan assimilation of foreign artistic techniques and artists, like Joyce, Swift, Marx, Handel, Pevsner and Conrad. Both nations tended to look towards France for their model of civilisation, with Frederick the Great refusing to write or speak German and inviting Voltaire to his estate.

Of course, in practice, I suspect a lot of the above essay reflects a romanticised view of Germany and Britain alike. Both nations invented traditions, based to a large extent on those of Prussia and England and indeed of each other (as with Britain importing the idea of the Christmas tree from Germany along with its royal family), stressing national identity with all the neurosis of countries lacking one in the first place. The preoccupation of both nations with their medieval pasts, from Castell Koch to the Wartburg and from Wagner’s nationalist medievalism, Grimm’s Fairy Tales through to the Pre-Raphaelites is perhaps attributable to this. But, if nothing else, it does provide contrarianism with a pedigree and a heritage.


* I say in their better part as I increasingly feel that this sense of deprectation is being diminished. During the course of our recent military escapades, it has become more common to recast the empire as a mantle we are obliged to take up once more (if only as a means of national pride by association with the United States) rather than as a source of shame and to boastingly compare our economic fortunes with those of European states like Germany on what are typically the flimsiest of grounds. I was rather reminded of that in this piece by imomus, himself a good example of an artist turning his back on his home country in favour of adopted homelands in Germany and Japan:

"British TV seems to be obsessed with the ideology of Social Darwinism. Shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link are all about the elimination of losers, and involve their audiences in the choice of those losers. It’s all very tally ho, a fox hunt. They’re the result of the transformation of Britain from a society that was at least heading towards horizontality (in other words, low-Gini equality) in the 60s and 70s to one that’s wedded at every level to inequality, unfairness, high-Gini — a “winner takes it all” society where income inequality is seen as something natural and even desireable.

Here in Germany you could never have shows as Social Darwinist as that, I ventured, because there really was the elimination of “the weakest link” here, within living memory, in the form of the extermination of gays, gypsies and Jews. In the same way, the surveillance excesses of the East German secret police have made it much harder to survey Germans. Britain’s ubiquitous citizen surveillance would be unacceptable here.

And this, for me, is why guilt is good. It’s guilt over things like surveillance and eliminating “the weakest link” which keeps the German state more liberal and benign than the UK state. It’s lack of guilt that’s the biggest current political problem in Israel, the UK and the US, and evidence of the return of guilt the most hopeful thing happening right now. "

The Outsider

Posted in Alienation, Culture, Individuality, Literature on July 19th, 2006 by Richard

Of late, I’ve been reading two very different texts that share several themes in common. The first of these, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a survey of alienation in romantic and existential literature. As a work of criticism it tends to be somewhat reductive, seeing anomie as a byproduct of thwarted mysticism, a somewhat difficult theory to approach the post-christian likes of Camus and Sartre with. Accordingly, Nietzsche in deflated to a religious mystic while the moral questions that so excised Bakhtin in his reading of Dostoevsky are declared an irrelevance.

The second, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, is both a bildungsroman and an account of the history and architecture of his native city. Where a Western writer would typically have sought to interrelate these two themes, Pamuk alternates between them, reflecting his own preoccupation with the idea of the divided self. Pamuk writes of his childhood imagining of another Orhan living in the same city, of seeing his myriad other selves reflected in the mirror, of his father’s other life in another flat and of his dual perception of his city as its inhabitatant and under his own westernised eyes so that he comes to see it as a foreigner. The experience of alienation is one Pamuk sees as the product of a divergent cultural heritage, under Western eyes. At one point, he notes that the traditional Turkish view of literature was as something social, the bricolage that provides the communal myths and discourses that bind a society. To this he opposes the Western tradition of seeing the artist as a man apart and suggests a form of dissociation of sensibility is an inevitable result of this collision. To take a similar argument from TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.”

Of the two views, I have to admit to finding Pamuk’s the more congenial. As the likes of Lukacs argued, much of the reason for mythology of the individual in Western Literature is attributable to the increasingly individualistic, post-traditional nature of Western society; the paradox is that only an outsider can describe such a society. Like Sartre and his attempts to reconcile existentialism and communism, Lukacs saw self and society as being irrevocably sundered in modern society, in contrast to more homogeneous societies. Once this unity disintegrated, there could be no more spontaneous totality of being.

This paradox seems to me to have particularly seeped into the work of two of the greatest contemporary writers; JG Ballard and Michel Houellebecq. The latter depicts an atomised society with a fervour for the subversive and transgressive, such as sex tourism and a contempt for much of tradition, welcoming capitalism’s destruction of religion. Equally, he detests capitalism and the social breakdown he sees as following from it, often reviling other forms of transgression like hippy communes and sex clubs. The former depicts a world of homogeneity and conformity which by its very nature produces instincts towards violence and destruction; “thrill seekers with a taste for random violence.. a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better.” These drives alternate in Ballard between becoming the basis of a new form of social cohesion in which entire communities participate and a form of social subversion. Equally, Ballard often oscillates between depicting such instincts as the product of modernity and as a reversion to nature that takes place in the absence of society. Ballard’s aesthetics remind me of this observation from Slavoj Zizek:

“Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du reel,’ the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.”

Unquiet Slumbers

Posted in Architecture, Culture, Decay, History, London, Macabre on June 12th, 2006 by Richard

Death held an especial place in the Victorian psyche. The combination of sentimental literature, with its stressing of the more pathetic (in the sense of pathos) emotions and the evangelical revival ensured that death acquired a prominence in Victorian life that it did not before and has not since.

Notoriously, Victorian literature loved to dwell on death of the pure and helpless, from Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop to Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. The horror genre, typified by Stoker and Poe, dwelt lovingly on bodily decay and life after death, playing expertly on fears of being buried alive. The elegy grew to particular prominence with Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Thrysis, while such works as Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel and Wuthering Heights aestheticised death as a state of romantic longing. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, noted the particular place tuberculosis held for the Victorian mind; it was a wasting disease founded on passion, a consumption of the life force. In painting, Ophelia was perhaps the most obsessive figure for the Pre-Raphaelite painter, perfectly unifying Thanatos and Eros and represented in her listless state by Watts, Rossetti, Millais, Hughes and Waterhouse. It is not for nothing for that Pre-Raphaelite angels grace most of the Victorian cemeteries. Much the same applied to children; throughout the likes of Dickens and Kingsley there is the sense that death is a blessed release that prevents children from ever falling from a primal state of innocence and being corrupted by the world (a rather palpable variant of which occurs in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). The work of Hans Christian Anderson (a house guest of Dickens) in particular can only be described as thanatophilic; the virtue of the little mermaid will be rewarded in heaven not through wedded bliss. Consider the mesmeric battles in Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm and how they leave that novel’s heroine drained of her vitality or the similar outcomes in Trilby. Spiritualism became increasingly popular, with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger proceeding from exploring a lost world of dinosaurs in one story to exploring the other world in a later narrative; not for nothing is it said that the Victorians treated death as simply another territory to be conquered.

More empirically, as the population of nineteenth century London increased and social conditions deteriorated, the demands on London’s cemeteries rapidly exceeded the available space. High property prices and the crowded condition of London’s churchyards led to incidents of bodysnatching and of older graves being emptied to make way for the new. The solution, for the upper and middle classes at least, was to build seven new cemeteries at a remove from the city, of which Kensal Green was the first. Funerals promptly went into fashion and came to cost far more than weddings, with both the ceremony and the tomb having to be as grandiose as possible. In short, the ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries represent a form of ritual, as much as photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased produced by the Victorians or jewellery that utilised a locket of the dead person’s hair, extravagant funerals and the wearing of black crepe.

Kensal Green Beasts

Covering a considerable expanse, Kensal’s necropolis represents as formidable an example of Victorian engineering and architecture as the museums in Kensington or the Houses of Parliament. The tombs cover a bewildering range of styles, from obelisks and pyramids to mourning angels (often with a trumpet to herald the day of the resurrection), to funerary urns half covered with veils, broken pillars (symbolising a life cut short) as well as the vogue for Celtic crosses. The results remind me of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial, wherein two profoundly different philosophies rest in uncomfortable proximity, namely Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other. The funerary urns are especially redolent of this, pointing as they do to Roman burial practices; in spite of cremation typically being considered pagan and unconscionable. One of the graves in Kensal Green is that of the judge who presided over a notorious case, whereby scandalised Welsh villagers realised that the self-proclaimed Archdruid William Price had taken the remains of his five month old son (rather inevitably named ‘Jesus Christ’) to a nearby hill in order to cremate the corpse. The villagers halted the ceremony and a court case followed, whereupon it was finally decided that cremation could be legalised.

Kensal Green was the first of the ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries to be constructed and perhaps the most impressive. While the trees were still leafless when I went to Highgate, Kensal had a perversely bucolic aspect in the sunshine with buttercups and daisies flowering as a Green Woodpecker perched on top of one of the graves and squirrels played between the tombs. Conrad mentions Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard and there seem little doubt that the design of these ‘garden cemeteries’ was an attempt to offer the dead a form of rest that was far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. Kensal Green would certainly have been rural when it was built, but today the cemetery is dominated by the rusting skeletons of two gasometers and the louring presence of Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower. Where Highgate has a hermetic aspect to it that leaves it largely divorced from the surrounding world, Kensal’s ugly brick walls do comparatively little to insulate it from the world of the living.

Kensal Green Tombs

Nonetheless, where a modern cemetery is orderly and utilitarian, Kensal Green is filled with the mythology of the underworld. The decaying monuments along the central avenue cover every conceivable architectural style, with sphinxes, angels, wyverns and atlantes guarding tombs designed in Neo-classical austerity, Gothic Revival intricacy and even in the Egyptian style that become fashionable after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Columns, pillars and caskets on one side of the central avenue compete with obelisks, spires and canopies on the other. The tomb of Sir William Casement is perhaps most striking in this respect. Egyptian tombs were often found to contain Shabti, funerary figures made of wood, stone or faience, that would serve as servants in the afterlife. Sir William Casement was a Victorian general who had served in India. This depiction of an Indian servant (allegedly), is one of four flanking each corner of his tomb’s canopy and rather reminds me of a Shabti.

Kensal Tomb Guardian

Most poignant is the tomb of Mary Gibson, a neo-classical canopy supported by two pillars at each corner and surmounted by four stone angels. Built in the ostentatious but less than durable choice of marble, the tomb has weathered badly, with the wreath previously held by the angels having already crumbed to dust. The pillars have already weakened badly and the collapse of the entire edifice will not be long delayed. My feelings about this are decidedly ambivalent; I am saddened to see so many of the tombs being slowly corroded into nothingness but am equally conscious that I am enough of a Romantic to be fascinated by decay and ruin (Conrad notes the disturbingly carious aspect assumed by many of the broken tombstones). Had I seen many of these tombs before they had been weathered and eroded I would doubtless have thought them the pretentious product of an over-moneyed middle class (lacking the need to gain a place in history through their monuments, the likes of Brunel, Babbage or Thackeray all have more restrained tombs).

Kensal Green Angels

Walking round it feels like discovering the ruins of an ancient city, a London Angkor Wat. Nonetheless, this remains a cemetery of the bourgeois and the excluded. The most impressive tombs belong to enterprising charlatans who had got rich through such fields as circus equestrianism or by selling quack patent remedies that they refused to take on their own death beds, while the other extreme is represented by writers like Trollope and Hood who were not considered worthy of being embraced by Westminster Abbey and by disgraced royals who had either committed indiscretions with Equerries or who had contracted morganatic marriages in contravention of the Royal Marriage Act, which states that permission for Royal offspring under a certain age to marry must be granted by the sovereign. These tombs only serve to reinforce the impression of Kensal Green as a city of the dead, with the list of characters residing there bearing a marked resemblance to the sort of caricature a Trollope or Thackeray novel would be filled with (though perhaps not a Dickens novel; internment here being sufficiently expensive to exclude the working classes). For example, there is Dr James Barry, a successful army doctor who worked tirelessly to improve Cape Town’s water system, performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections, sought to improve the conditions of the common soldier and fought several duels whenever he felt himself slighted. He was only unmasked as a woman after her death, having concealed the fact (as well as the signs of pregnancy) from even her closest associates, a feat worthy of a Wilkie Collins heroine (or possibly a Sherlock Holmes story: The Strange Case of Dr James Miranda Barry perhaps).

Kensal Green Sphinx

For a further plot that could only have been contrived by a Braddon or Collins sensation novel, there is the tomb of the Duke of Portland. The Duke was an eccentric recluse, who permitted no-one except his valet to see him in person in his quarters and had double letterboxes built into his rooms; one for ingoing mail and another for outgoing mail. It was in short, inevitable that he became a source of gossip, ranging from suspicions of disfigurement, madness or wild orgies. These Lerouxesque rumours were only further fuelled by the fact that the Duke had built an underground labyrinth of passages beneath his estate. Built by a veritable army of workmen, the labyrinth had contained a ballroom, a library, a billiards room and an observatory with a glass roof. The ballroom had a hydraulic lift (admittedly not that uncommon; Kensal’s Greek revival Chapel comes equipped with hydraulic catafalque that leads down into the catacombs) that could carry 20 guests from the surface and a ceiling that was painted as a giant sunset, all of which seems somewhat excessive, given that the Duke was far too reclusive to hold any balls in it. The tunnels were alleged to have emerged at Worksop railway station and were wide enough at several points for two carriages to pass by one another. However, if the Duke had business in London, it seems that in practice he took his hearse to Worksop and had the whole carriage loaded onto a railway truck. Upon his arrival to his London residence in Cavendish Square, all the household staff was ordered out of sight when he hurried into his study through the front hall.

Kensal Green Cross

Upon his death the tunnels became the locus of a claim by a certain Anna Maria Druce that her husband and the Duke were one and the same, thereby entitling her son to inherit the Duke’s Portland estate. Her contention was that her husband had faked his death in order to return to a secluded existence on his estate, having previously used the tunnels and the railway to move between his two lives unobserved. A legal case of a similar order of magnitude to Jarndyce and Jarndyce ensued and was only resolved when the cadaver of Mr Druce was exhumed from Highgate Cemetery and found to be present and correct, in spite of the claim from Mrs Druce that the coffin contained only lead weights. Two witnesses were tried for perjury while Anna Maria was confined to an asylum.

Kensal Green does have one important characteristic that I have entirely elided from this account; it is still a working cemetery that is still run by the same company that established it. Though ostensibly Anglican, the presence of Cyrillic and Hebrew on many of the modern tombs suggests a more ecumenical approach. As graves here are every bit as expensive today as they were for the Victorians, it is notable that Chinese appears a popular lingua franca across many recent tombs, presumably representing one of the city’s more enterprising communities. It’s interesting to think of what future visitors will make of these once they are as worn and decayed as their Victorian forebears. It seems to me that the differences of language and style for the modern graves seem slight when set againt the Victorian profusion of imagery and its babel-like quality.

Kensal Green Mausoluem